Three Rivers Mayor Tom Lowry is seeking re-election for a 13th term in the Tuesday, Aug. 8 primary election. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)
By Robert Tomlinson
Editor’s note: This article, originally published in the July 7 edition of the Commercial-News, is the first part of a three-part series profiling all three candidates in the race for Mayor of Three Rivers.
THREE RIVERS — For the first time in what seems like a long time, the race for mayor of Three Rivers is looking to be a competitive one.
For Tom Lowry, the owner of Lowry’s Books and More and the 12-term mayor of Three Rivers, he says he welcomes the competition.
“I think normally competition is good,” Lowry said. “We’ve not had three people ever running in my time; it’s always been two people if there was any competition.”
Lowry, along with Vernis Mims and Natelege Zaritz, will compete in a runoff election on Aug. 8 to determine the top two candidates who will be on the ballot on Nov. 7. He is seeking an unprecedented 13th term as mayor, dating back to the mid-1990s, which included a hiatus between 2007 and 2011, when he lost to Al Balog in 2007 and declined to run again in 2009.
Despite being in the office for as long as he has, Lowry said he still enjoys the job, which is one reason he is seeking re-election.
“I joke with people that I don’t know what that says about me, but I do enjoy it,” Lowry said. “I feel like I’m part of a team that’s gotten a lot of good things done. We’ve gotten a lot of projects completed, a lot of long-range planning has been completed, and I’ve been part of a group that’s made that happen.”
Over the years, Lowry has overseen a lot of big things that have been going on in Three Rivers, with one of the most notable accomplishments he mentioned being the city’s use of long-range planning for projects.
“Joe Bippus had an idea that in order to stabilize the budget and plan for events like the recession in 2008, that you never know one or two years down the road if your revenue would be the same. So, especially for very large purchases, you start planning for it two years out, five years out, and you start setting money aside for it, and that takes the hit off of it somewhat, and that minimizes disruptions to our budget.,” Lowry said. “Some things do happen, but it keeps it to a minimum, and the commission has agreed on that as a general goal. That allows us to be relatively stable and allows us to provide the same level of services without disruptions.”
Some of that long-range planning has also included an ongoing project to replace lead water service lines in the city, a plan that has involved raising water rates to help fund what is expected to be a state-mandated project that could cost in the millions of dollars to complete. While the move was and still is highly unpopular among city residents due to concerns about the quality of the water provided by the city, Lowry said it was a necessary thing to do.
“Part of the rate increase on the water was to put money aside for the lead line abatement. The federal government gave money a few years ago for villages and cities to start sampling so you had a sense of how bad your problem is. Our problem could cost us $10 million,” Lowry said. “It’s estimated that 1,100 houses have lead lines that have to be replaced, at roughly $9,000 to $10,000 per line. We don’t have that money. It’s an unfunded mandate. We’ve applied for a grant through the state of Michigan to start that, but even with all of that, we have 18 years out of 20 years to complete it, and we raised rates to start putting money aside so we can get it going. I consider us proactive that way, that we’re planning for it, we’re not waiting until the last minute.”
Looking at the landscape of the city today, Lowry said there are “big things” on the horizon, including navigating the use of state money to the city from the elimination of personal property taxes for big businesses, such as big box retail stores, and his hopes of working on relationships between the city and the surrounding townships.
However, Lowry said there are a couple of big issues the city is facing right now.
“One of them is to keep offering services at the same level without raising taxes too much. The other one is we can’t find enough qualified workers,” Lowry said. “We’re all struggling; if you’re a factory of mom or pop, we have challenges keeping good people here. Other cities are so desperate they raise wages or have sign-on bonuses, so people leave us who are good and we don’t want to lose them. It’s a challenge to keep good professionals at the city.”
Lowry said the city has addressed the issue of finding workers at the city level by raising wages “as much as we could,” including the police and fire departments in order to compete with surrounding cities.
While Lowry has had comfortable re-election races in the past, with some years running unopposed, some controversies in the past couple of years surrounding Lowry could make him vulnerable this election cycle, particularly with new competition in the field. Most notably, Lowry received regional attention for a public spat he had with International Association of Fire Fighters Local 3102 President Chad Witt, a Three Rivers Fire Department firefighter, during a city commission meeting back in May 2022.
In the viral back-and-forth, Lowry said Witt “has no knowledge of the history” of the department and he wished Witt “would have the balls to come and talk to me” about the issues with the Three Rivers Fire Department Witt discussed in his public comment, including firefighter wages, EMS personnel leaving the department, and the fire department’s budget. Lowry apologized to Witt in the days following the meeting.
In addition, earlier this year Lowry was involved in a dispute with Lockport and Park townships regarding a Public Act 425 agreement between the two townships regarding land he owned in Lockport Township that he wanted to have acquired by the city to build housing for. The agreement, which Lockport Township Supervisor Mark Major said was done in part to prevent the city from acquiring the land and to help support a proposed water/sewer project in Park Township, was approved by both townships back in April despite Lowry’s fervent objections.
Asked if any of these issues, in particular the incident with Witt, could be seen as a deterrent for voters at the ballot box, Lowry said he “would hope not.”
In addition, Lowry was critical about his competition in the race, remarking that the other two candidates running against him “never volunteered for a single thing” before this year, and noted that he hasn’t had the opportunity to meet them yet. Mims was appointed in April to the Three Rivers Housing Development Corporation board, while Zaritz was appointed back in May to the city’s Planning Commission.
“It would be unfortunate if I lost to two people who’ve never volunteered for a single moment in the city’s interest until they got on the ballot,” Lowry said.
However, Lowry said if he does lose, that doesn’t mean he’d stop volunteering to make the city a better place to live.
“I’m an independent, and I believe that I’m doing the best I can do for the city. If I was ever to lose again, I would still volunteer, I’d still contribute, still lead or participate in all the non-profits I’m involved with,” Lowry said. “I still believe in children, and I will do everything I can to help the children of this community.”
Overall, Lowry believes he’s the best candidate for mayor during this election cycle.
“I can offer experience, I can offer stability, I can offer knowledge and know far more about so many city issues than I ever thought possible,” Lowry said.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or firstname.lastname@example.org.